The Future of NC: Powering down

 In Features, February 2016

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n 2014, the federal government’s 99-year-old General Services Administration headquarters at 1800 F St. NW in Washington, D.C., had more than 1,000 air conditioners sticking out of windows. Those window units are now gone, along with any notions that you can’t teach an old building new tricks. Now, the six-story structure “is one of the smartest buildings anywhere,” says Tom Shircliff, 50, whose Charlotte-based consulting business helped bring the GSA headquarters into the 21st century.

Shircliff and Rob Murchison, 46, co-founded Intelligent Buildings LLC in 2004. Shircliff had worked in telecommunications before getting involved in real-estate technology for a developer in 2002. Murchison, who started writing spaceship-launch programs on his TRS-80 computer at age 13, had been immersed in IT jobs his entire career and was also captivated by emerging smart-building technology.

Despite common interests and a shared city, they didn’t know each other until 11 years ago,  when a smart-building guru from Cisco Systems suggested they meet. “He said, ‘There are not 10 people in the country focused on smart buildings — and two of you live in Charlotte,’” Shircliff says. “You should have lunch.”

They did, and their shared outlook about life, family and “smart real estate” compelled them to launch Intelligent Buildings. Since then, they have developed strategies and set standards for energy efficiency, sustainability and building-systems security for commercial and government properties in 85 cities in the U.S. and Canada. “We wrote the smart-building standards for both the U.S. and Canadian governments,” Murchison says. Last year, they expanded to Singapore, working with business and government clients in the Asian nation.

While smartening-up buildings has become a huge business, with far more than 10 people involved, Intelligent Buildings is holding its own. Sales totaled $5.9 million in 2014, nearly triple from three years earlier. Inc. magazine ranked the company 2,034 on its list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies. It has 26 employees, and clients include giant Microsoft Corp., which hired Intelligent Buildings to save energy and money at various sites, including the 15-million-square-foot headquarters campus in Redmond, Wash. “We expect savings of over 14% from our global portfolio,” aided by the Charlotte consultants, says Darrell Smith, director of facilities and energy. 

With smart buildings, computerized systems for metering, lighting, heating and more are integrated, enabling owners to monitor them remotely. Smart building systems also can utilize computer programs that reveal costly energy faults, such as rooms that are being simultaneously heated and cooled. Over the next 20 years, smart buildings will become more like driverless cars that run themselves. “They’re going to have the ability to react to the preferences of occupants, and they’re going to run a lot more efficiently by themselves,” Murchison says. One example: If a go-getter arrives at the office at 5 a.m., the heat may come on automatically. “It’s all this information that will become more automated, but again — the key is to be able to get and analyze data quickly, and real estate is usually a decade or more behind other industry segments,” Shircliff says.

The GSA building, built in 1917, is the oldest structure Intelligent Buildings has worked on. Its upgrades enable various systems to work in concert with how government employees use the space, Shircliff says. “If someone reserves a conference room, a few minutes before the reservation, it’ll start bringing up the air temperature and enable the lighting system, based on the schedule.” The headquarters is now a model for federal buildings nationwide.

Murchison and Shircliff also have made a mark in North Carolina. Intelligent Buildings helped plan the systems for Duke Energy Center, a 48-story office tower in Charlotte. After opening in 2010, it was a grand prize winner in Siemens AG’s Smartest Building in America Challenge. In 2011, they helped launch Envision Charlotte, a voluntary program with a goal of reducing energy usage in uptown Charlotte by 20% over five years. By June 2015, participants had reduced energy usage by 16%.

Cybersecurity is a growing emphasis for Intelligent Buildings, which has seen troubling gaps that make some buildings easy targets for snoops and hackers. Even older building systems depend on computers and networks, which can be hacked if proper precautions aren’t taken. “Remember, we said all systems have computers, whether you like it or not?” Shircliff says. “So think about looking out any window in a city at all the buildings. … There are computers in all of them, and almost all of them have some kind of DSL lines connected to them. And, almost all of them have some kind of Best Buy router that has ‘admin admin’ as the username and password.”

Murchison cites a retail bank customer whose HVAC contractor installed a router to enable remote access. The contractor “didn’t know anything about IT, and he left the Wi-Fi on,” he says. That potential portal into the bank’s computer system was discovered when “one of our technicians, sitting in the parking lot, got on the Wi-Fi because they didn’t change the default password when they put it in there.”

Cyberattacks can originate from an experienced foreign hacker or a tech-savvy teenager down the street. In worst cases, hackers might shut down elevators, cause temperatures to rise to dangerous levels or enter servers containing financial and personnel data. Some buildings are run by “old Windows systems that are not supported anymore,” Shircliff says. Those computers don’t get upgrades or security patches to block computer viruses.

Some contend that smart buildings create risks that didn’t exist when the GSA and other buildings used simpler technology, such as the old-time air conditioners. “Nobody asked that Johnson Controls would make an HVAC system using a computer,” Shircliff says. “That’s just the way they made it, right? So that cyber thing is not about smart buildings. That cyber thing is about the current state of buildings that are all connected to the Internet.”

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